The 32nd Constitutional Convention of the United Steelworkers of America (USWA) two weeks ago came at a critical time for the union and the labor movement. With 50 steel companies in bankruptcy in the last few years, times have been tough. Jobs have been lost. Contracts have been shattered. Pensions and health care have been lost or sharply cut for thousands of retired steelworkers.

All this is getting worse in the Bush administration’s second term. It has launched renewed attacks on union rights, including the right to organize by card check. It promotes trade policies that serve big capital and the transnationals at the expense of workers everywhere. And it joins with the extreme right in Congress to advance policies that will further drive down the standards of all workers, everything from bankruptcy “reform” to severe budget cuts for people-helping programs.

The steel convention also came at a time of intense debate in labor. Whole sections of the labor movement are engaged in a historic examination of program, strategy and direction. With their convention the Steelworkers took that debate to the rank and file in a big way. But they framed the debate from a steelworker’s point of view. They ignored the sensationalism and the personalities of the general debate and stuck to the issues of change most relevant to their union.

Some have dismissed the debate as being too academic or too isolated from the day-to-day struggles of unions and workers. The steelworkers see that labor must make big changes to fight back effectively against the ultra-right and transnational capital. This convention took the issues straight to the membership. The steelworkers showed that the debates in labor are vital and mandated, not by any small group of labor leaders no matter how well intentioned, but by the very conditions and demands of the class struggle today.

The steel convention illustrates where these discussion and debates in labor are going. Some important features of the convention are signposts:

The USWA merged with PACE (Paper, Allied-Industrial, Chemical and Energy Workers) at this convention. The new union, United Steelworkers (USW) for short, will strengthen each union in some key industrial sectors of the economy. Even if you are bothered by the growth of “general unions,” this merger was done thoughtfully and democratically with rank-and-file participation and ratification. Care was taken on questions of unity and union culture, traditions and history. The energy and militancy that rippled through the combined delegates from the two merged unions on the convention’s final day was moving and powerful.

The convention approved new international strategic agreements with Brazilian and Mexican unions. These add to an already extensive network that the Steelworkers have built with unions from around the world. These agreements go far beyond just talk and exchange of information — they mandate joint action. Growing anger against, and awareness of, capitalist globalization was apparent from the rank and file and the leadership. Fifty-three international delegates attended.

Perhaps the most important business of the convention was adoption of a “Building Power Action Plan.” The theme of “building power” ran throughout the convention. The action plan is a program to educate and mobilize the membership. It speaks to most aspects of the current debates in labor: organizing, independent political action, building national and international labor solidarity, labor/community coalition building, collective bargaining and defending the wages and working conditions of members.

Over and over, from the floor and from the podium, the point was made that the action plan means nothing if it remains a booklet. All agreed that only by taking the action plan and theme back into the locals and communities will it “build power.” Throughout the convention it was clear that this union and its membership are taking responsibility for the whole labor movement, for all workers. At the heart of the “building power” theme and plan is mobilizing the grassroots of labor in a movement of, by, and for workers. It is a return to the basics of class struggle trade unionism and another giant step towards ending business unionism.

What stood out overall was the participation from the floor, from the elected delegates. It is clear that the “building power” militancy is coming from the rank and file. The leadership is drawing on the anger and spirit of the membership and organizing it for action. Even the language reflected a change. Delegates and leaders spoke of the working class. They used words like “militancy” and “pissed off.” “Capitalism” and “socialism” were even mentioned a few times with no one running for the exits.

There were certainly things said and positions taken to disagree with. But the debate is on and headed in a good direction if judged by the Steelworkers convention.

Scott Marshall (scott@rednet.org) is chair of the Communist Party USA’s Labor Commission.

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